Imagine the Unimaginable
The last time I traveled by plane was during the week of March 9-13, 2020. It was also during that week that the world changed. Two fellow team leaders and I were traveling to Honduras to visit two of our operating partners with hopes to continue our efforts to strengthen their leadership and daily operations. As we neared the day of our departure for Honduras, there had been rumors for a couple of months about a new virus that began in China and was popping up in other countries. It’s hard to remember our perception of COVID in “the before times,” as I’ve heard it called, but I remember having a conversation with my wife about how we felt about me traveling. So much was as yet unknown and we felt that with the proper precautions we would be fine.
Indeed, we were fine but the world we had left was not the same one by the time we returned. During the course of our time in Honduras, we were without cell signal each day until we returned to where we were staying in the late afternoon. Every day, once our phones grasped a signal, we were greeted with more and more cancellations and closures. Schools, NCAA tournament, church services, and the list went on. It got even more real when neighboring countries closed their borders while we were still in Honduras!
Fortunately, we made it back without issue and we all have lived with the reality of COVID ever since. It’s been hard. Really hard. It can get overwhelming thinking of all the things we’ve had to give up, do without, and sacrifice. Not to mention the absolutely staggering number of lives lost.
As I think back on the earliest days and weeks of the pandemic, I’m grateful for an encounter with Psalm 23, which showed up in the lectionary in March. In such a disorienting time, it was so comforting to dwell in such rich words as we find in this beloved Psalm. What struck me at that time was how I have tended to read verses 4 and 5.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Over the years of hearing this Psalm, I think I’ve always heard verse 4 as a scene change from the idyllic beginning with its green pastures, still waters, and right paths. Then, there comes the darkest valley and the presence of evil. But then we get out of the valley by the end of the Psalm we’re back to peaceful images of abundance.
What I had never noticed, or at least had never paid attention to, is that verses 4 and 5 are the only places where the Psalmist changes tone to use the 2nd person pronoun “you” and “your.” So, what if these verses are meant to hold together? What if there is no scene change and the amazing imagery and metaphor of verses 5-6, the amazing fresh arrival of God’s compassion and mercy occurs precisely when we are in the darkest valley and not once we are out of it? What if the table is set and the oil is poured precisely in those places and moments when it is the hardest not to fear the evil that surrounds? What if it is in the wilderness that we will find the most fertile soil for God to grow our faith?
Water Team member Law Wright (top right) with Jon taking a virtual tour with all the teams working on the installation in Valladolid, Lempira, Honduras.
This encounter with Psalm 23 early in the pandemic was so helpful in framing the days, weeks and months that would follow. It would be so easy to pile on the list of all the things we can’t do. But I heard God inviting me to see what IS possible in our current moment. And one thing I could never have imagined is that on a Sunday afternoon in October, I would be virtually attending a water celebration through WhatsApp. Through the amazing work of our in country staff in Honduras, new partnerships have continued to be established! Not only did I get to witness the celebration, I was able (through some ingenious use of technology) to address the gathered community as the sponsoring Initiating Partner (IP).
This was truly a beautiful moment and a reminder that God will surprise us with what God can do even with all the limitations we are experiencing. We may be in the valley, but don’t be surprised if God sneaks in there with you!
Jon Frost is the Associate Pastor for Worship at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, PA. Westminster, the sponsoring Initiating Partner, worked alongside Hondurans Helping Hondurans on the water system installation at Valladolid, Lempira, Honduras. This is the 7th water system installation done by Hondurans Helping Hondurans.